Articulating an Alternative to the PAP’s Singapore

On 1 October 2020, PJ Thum delivered the keynote lecture at the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) fundraising dinner. In it, he outlines three major ideologies which underpin People’s Action Party (PAP) governance in Singapore and explains how the PAP has tied these to Singapore’s national identity.

Further, reflecting on GE2020, PJ explains how the Worker’s Party has positioned itself in relation to these ideologies. He challenges the PSP (and all other political parties) to articulate a coherent alternative. Until a political party has formed a coherent platform and articulated clearly what the party’s values are, PJ argues, it cannot attract loyal members, have committed supporters, or develop a coherent, sustainable party. Please note that the opinions expressed in this speech are PJ’s personal views and are not endorsed by the Progress Singapore Party.


The following is the prepared text of Dr PJ Thum’s speech. Please note that he departed from the text at several points. This is not transcript.

Thank you for inviting me to speak today, and my thanks especially to the organisers. My name is PJ Thum, I’m standing on stage wearing a blue batik shirt, and my pronouns are he/him.

I want to start today by posing some questions: What is the PSP’s vision of Singaporean identity? In your views, what are the values that underpin our identity? And if I were to walk out on the street right now, and ask a voter in West Coast GRC what your values are, what would they say? Heck, if I were to ask your average party member right now what your party values are, would they get it right?

The PSP is a new party and public familiarity with Dr Tan gave you some voter recognition in GE2020, but these questions, I argue, are the PSP’s biggest challenge in order to become a viable party. To win elections. To survive and become sustainable beyond your founder – and let’s not kid ourselves, Dr Tan should be retired and drinking whiskey with his feet up right now, not fighting frontline politics. Typical Singapore, senior citizens still having to work for the good of the country. I heard Tan Chuan Jin say it’s just a form of exercise. Dr Tan’s unstoppable. Even my 15 year old son knows who he is. #hypebeast.

But seriously, what does the PSP stand for?

To understand this, let me frame this in the form of historical forces. Sorry, you invite a historian to speak, this is what you get. 

The greatest force of the 20th century is nationalism, and in particular the concept of the nation-state. The concept of the nation-state arose out of the wreckage of World War I as the great European land empires – Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman – were torn apart. This idea was powerfully liberating by articulating the idea that people should govern themselves. But how do we group people? Well, if everyone has a nationality, if they belong to a nation; and nations should be sovereign and self-governing; then each nation should have its own state. 

The problem is that it is impossible for every nation to neatly map on to every state and vice versa. Over time, autocrats realised that monopolising control of the definition of the nation allowed them to target their enemies by saying they are not part of the nation, and from there it’s a short step to saying that they are against the nation, a threat to the people of the nation, and that justifies acting with extreme prejudice against their enemies, real or perceived. 

So the nation-state ideal powers the breakup of empires and the liberation of colonies which form new states throughout the 20th century. But at the same time, we also get horrors like genocide. Who belongs to the nation? Who does not? The Rohingya. The Uighurs. The Tibetans. The Papuans. What nation do they belong to? What state do they belong to? What happens if their self-definition of their own identity is different from the state government’s definition?

What happens if my definition of my own identity is different from the government’s? In Singapore, we see people who disagree with the government being tarred as anti-national, as traitors, on the most spurious grounds. Like me.

So the fundamental political contest of our modern world is not about policies. It’s actually about identity. This is the consequence of over a century of the nation-state ideal. 

This is the central contradiction of the world today: that we organise ourselves politically on the basis of the nation-state, which is predicated on the nation, which is entirely imaginary and subjective. And that gives immense power to those who can control that identity. The people who can control the identity of the nation can control the state.

That’s why the fundamental political contest of our modern world is not about policies. It’s actually about identity. Because today, a vast amount of political power comes from being able to define and control national identity. This is the consequence of over a century of the nation-state ideal.

Studies have shown that people don’t vote purely on the basis of rational self-interest. They can’t, there’s too many conflicting details. People don’t vote on the basis of who the best candidate is, or even usually on the basis of a single issue. All of these things matter, but when you walk into a polling station, you only have a limited set of choices in front of you, and no one agrees with every policy that a party puts out. What studies have shown is that all of this is ultimately, wrapped up in identity. Voters vote as much to affirm their own identity as to make a choice about party and policy.

Voting has become very tribal. Voters vote, and feel entirely justified in voting, on the basis of a very narrow identity that they identify with. This then brings into power leaders who use fear of the Other and exclusionary nationalism to win power. Leaders like Trump and Orban, or indeed Mahathir or Muhyiddin, are natural products of our historical trajectory, not aberrations or exceptions. They stoke fears of people who do not fit in with their “national” identity, especially minorities and migrants. They attach values which support their position and attack ones which don’t as anti-national. Ironically, nationalism, which enabled so much liberation via decolonisation, is now a primary justification for oppression and exclusion within the nation-states, and it has led to our world being more divided. 

And the toxicity of much nationalist rhetoric and the politics of fear means that a wide range of issues are now tied to nationalism: migrants, dilution of one’s culture, moral decay, and loss of economic livelihood. The exploitation of workers, for example, is an economic issue tied fundamentally to the lack of leverage of workers against capital. Rationally, workers should be angry at governments or capitalists for exploiting them by destroying uions, eroding workers’ rights, and bringing in cheap labour. But they are not; instead, they are angry at foreign workers for coming and taking their jobs. They are against open borders even though it is clear that open border, among other things, increase the leverage of workers to demand higher wages by giving them mobility to challenge the mobility of capital.

And this shows us how nationalism can trump class. It can overpower rational economic self-interest. Consequently, politicians find it far easier to mobilise voters on the basis of nationalism and fear, rather than rational arguments. Look at the last election. All of you, every party, PSP and PAP included, walked the line between xenophobia and workers’ rights. Why were you fundamentally unable to overcome this nationalist framing?

That’s the power of nationalism. We’re all trapped within the PAP’s conception of the nation. And this is how the PAP wins. Because as long as they monopolise what it means to be Singaporean, they are the natural party of power. They control the definition of what it means to be Singaporean, and having the PAP in power is at the core of that definition.

And what is their definition of national identity? I want to emphasise three important core ideological tenets which the PAP fiercely defends, which since the 1990s, they have consistently sought to define as core to the Singaporeans identity.

Perhaps it goes without saying but these are not what Singaporeans believed in 1963, or even 1973 or 1983. These are the product of a sustained propaganda campaign that dates from the mid 1980s and has been enhanced over the years through narratives like the Singapore Story but also increasing policies and regulations which have reshaped our society. Certainly the PAP in the 1950s and early 1960s believed in political contestation and competitive politics, citizenship rights, human rights, labour rights, democratic institutions, transparency and accountability, and a comprehensive social welfare system. All this is well documented in the speeches of the PAP leaders, and the newspapers, and seen in the popular support given to them by the electorate.

But today, of course, they have successfully tied these core ideas to our national identity through, on the one hand, campaigns like “Asian values” and on the other hand, demonising competing ideologies as “Western values, western ideology, western politics.” They demonise the foreign as the anti-national, but selectively so in a way which defends their conception of the nation. It’s very hypocritical.

Let me take these in turn. First, that individuals do not possess human or socio-political rights which they can assert against the government. Everything the state gives you is a privilege, not a right. Walking down the street is a privilege, not a right. Under the Public Order Act, walking down the street without a permit is illegal. Just ask Seelan Palay.

This, the government says, is “Asian”. Lee Hsien Loong has said, for example, “In the west, you protect individuals from society; in Asia, we protect society from the individual.” This of course is nonsense. Plenty of Asian societies protect personal rights, either as customary rights or constitutional rights, against the encroachment of the state. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste, Indonesia… and so on. And of course, as I mentioned before, when PAP was in opposition it sincerely believed in those same human rights. Once it took power, suddenly it embraced the ideology of the colonial oppressor.

But, you see, this position gives the PAP the space to then articulate all sorts of arbitrary and even contradictory positions. For example, it says society is fragile and we, the government intervene in people’s lives to a great degree for harmony and also long term planning. That’s the Asian way, they say. At the same time, they also argue that family or individual responsibility for welfare is the Asian way, and preferable to collective responsibility or Western-style welfare states. No crutch mentality. 

Lee Kuan Yew said, “If you bring a child into the world in the West, the state cares for him. If you bring a child into the world in Asia, that’s your personal responsibility.” That’s not even true! If anything, it’s the other way around! How many of us were raised by our ah ma, ah gong while our parents were at work?

And it is an outright contradiction. If the government is going to take away our choices, and impose decisions on us, then it must take responsibility for its actions; if it wants us to take responsibility for our lives, then it must give us genuine choice to make decisions for ourselves. Instead, they want all of the control without any of the responsibility. This is a contradiction, but if you understand the PAP’s policies are predicated on a lack of individual socio-political rights, then it all makes sense.

This affects all your policy proposals. In the recent GE, we talked a lot about tackling cost of living and inequality. But I think all the parties implicitly accepted the right of the government to intervene and determine entirely the appropriate level of welfare that Singaporeans are permitted. Is the citizen’s access to welfare a right or a privilege? In many developed countries, a citizen’s access to welfare is a right and cannot be arbitrarily withdrawn. That is not the case in Singapore! Hence, the fear of government. Tharman can say we believe in a trampoline model of welfare. But that only works if the citizen has the confidence that the government will never suddenly pull that trampoline away from under them just because they don’t like what that citizen says or does.

The PAP’s second ideology is that political accountability derives from the moral virtue of political leaders rather than liberal and democratic institutions, and that this virtue can be determined through state sponsored meritocracy. 

In the recent GE, opposition parties campaigned heavily on the need for a critical mass of elected opposition MPs to increase accountability. Also, more broadly, calls for increased transparency and accountability were not just from the PAP but all state institutions. How did the PAP defend itself against this? Through an ideology which Garry Rodan has called the PAP’s moral ideology of accountability. 

Now, when we generally talk about accountability, we are talking about democratic or legal, constitutional theories of accountability. Democratic accountability is when officials at all levels face the will of the people in some form, whether directly through elections or otherwise. This protects the sovereignty of the people. Constitutional accountability focuses on protecting individual freedoms via legal, constitutional, and contractual relationships to restrain the ability of the government and state agencies to violate personal freedoms.

But for the PAP’s moral ideology, political authority is grounded in something ineffable. It’s grounded in metaphysical, charismatic and/or traditional sources that are beyond objective judgement. Political leaders are the moral guardians of society and, in Singapore, moral virtue (your personal integrity) combines with “meritocracy” (talent) to determine the elite. So when we evaluate the conduct of people with power, the main question those in power ask is, are are they a good person? Do they conform to certain arbitrary codes of behaviour?

But who decides who is moral? The PAP. The PAP decides who has moral virtue and personal integrity. The PAP sets up and judges the system of meritocracy.

So if a PAP Minister screws up, they can brush anger aside by saying “I know that Minister. He is a good person. It is an honest mistake.” I don’t need to go through the number of times they have said this: Mas Selamat, MRT problems, immigration, racist remarks, etc. etc. etc. Because the PAP’s judgement of your morality is more important than the law’s judgement. 

Conversely, a leader’s poor performance can be taken to be fundamentally the result of personal failings, rather than institutional arrangements. And so they can just change the person without changing the system at all, and say it’s not the PAP’s fault, or the system’s fault that things have gone wrong, and give the person a second chance by moving them somewhere else. Like Ivan Lim, or the GM of AMK Town Council.

This undermines rule of law and implicitly sends a message that it is more important to have good leaders than rule of law. But who decides who are good leaders? The PAP.

What will save Singapore is a system in which no one is above the law; where everyone is accountable to the law and to the people; where both the letter and spirit of our constitution are respected; where the system is more important than any single individual. 

Dr Tan, you and I have both met Singaporeans who ask us to please come and save Singapore. We appreciate the sentiment, but this attitude is exactly what the PAP wants. It wants people to accept that there is a superior class of people who will come along and save us all and everyone else can sit back and relax.

Finally, the third ideology is that rational problem-solving should be favoured over political competition and contestation (a “consensus” or “consultative” ideology). Consensus ideologies of representation emphasise that problems can be better solved—and thus governance rendered more effective—not through a process where we publicly debate and argue, but through a deliberative process where stakeholders’ interests and/or expertise are incorporated into public policy processes. Eg Feedback unit, REACH, Singapore “Conversations”.

Here’s the crucial thing: in this system, political representatives don’t need be authorised by those they claim to represent through any particular process of political contestation. Rather, these unelected officials can claim that they represent the public interest because they have carried out consultative processes. This undermines democracy. The government claims this is apolitical but of course, that is nonsense. Just because you don’t hear different values and views in the process doesn’t mean you are neutral. More often it means that you’ve excluded dissenting views.

So the technocratic elite are shielded from different political views and values, which means that their own political views are overrepresented in the process. This elite has intensely elitist and functionalist notions of how public policy issues are defined and addressed. Prime Minister Lee thus says things like: “We listen. We hear you. We will take your feedback into accounts.” The emphasis is we solve the problem, not you. Normative choices in public policy are downplayed.

So when, at the opening of Parliament, PM Lee said he wants “constructive politics”, what he really means is, elitist, technocratic politics. Even as Singaporeans have demanded more and more say in how our lives are run, the PAP has consistently it sought to channel this increase in political mobilisation through PAP-controlled institutions, through which they can manufacture political consensus. What’s the latest one? Singapore Together Emerging Stronger Conversations?

So, let’s recap. The PAP has articulated our national values to include three important ideologies which deeply advantage the PAP:

  1. First, that individuals do not possess human or social rights which they can assert against the government.
  2. Second, that political accountability derives from the moral virtue of political leaders rather than democratic or constitutional institutions, and that this virtue can be determined through state sponsored meritocracy.
  3. Third, that rational – elitist – problem-solving should be favoured over political competition and contestation.

So this is where I come back to the beginning. What does the PSP stand for? And in particular, where do you stand in relation to these three ideologies? 

Articulating your values clearly means that you know where you stand; it means your voters know where you stand; it also means your party members, and prospective party members, know where you stand. It means your values are more important than any single party member, it helps to enforce internal unity and discipline and prevent defections, it means that you are able to articulate consistent policy decisions because you know what your values are, which in turn means that voters know what you stand for, which means that, in a time when voting is about affirming identity, they know what identity they are voting for. It means that you have a platform which can inspire, which people can emotionally embrace, which they can incorporate into their identity. 

Until you articulate these clearly, people are not voting for you. They are just voting against the PAP.

Now I hear you asking, what about the Worker’s Party, the only other opposition party in government. People think they are successful because they focus on bread and butter issues and are one step to the left of the PAP. That to me is a symptom, not the explanation, of their fundamental party values.

What the WP have done is to accept the PAP’s premise of these three ideologies in order to deemphasise the difference between themselves and the PAP. If they accept the PAP’s definition of national identity, this means the PAP finds it very difficult to attack the WP as anti-national and traitors. 

This has upsides and downsides. It makes it very very hard for the WP to distinguish themselves from the PAP politically, and so people can reasonably say why vote for the WP when I can vote for the PAP? It means the WP have to wait for the PAP to screw up before they can win, and they can lose their seats very easily, as we saw in Ponggol East, if people have no compelling reason to vote against the PAP. It means they fight on the basis of competence, which the PAP always has the advantage on, as it has a track record and the powers of incumbency. But it also means that it is easier to win. People who are used to the PAP and scared of change have a very small step to make to vote for the WP.

But consider that the WP also must behave like the PAP. This severely restricts what they can do, the solutions they can present, and how they present it.

For example, they have signalled a rejection of individual human rights for Singaporeans, like Pritam’s entirely unexpected and unnecessary announcement that the WP would not fight for the repeal of 377A. This is an acceptance of the PAP’s position, but it makes it very very hard for the WP to articulate arguments on the basis of such rights in the future without contradicting themselves and opening themselves up to accusations of hypocrisy.

More broadly, they accept that the government has the right to impose solutions, and approach it on a technocratic basis. Look at how Jamus is talking about the minimum wage. It’s technical, it’s limited. When he talks about rebalancing economic policies on behalf of labour, he doesn’t talk about empowering labour unions to be able to increase their negotiation strength against capital, or rewriting the constitution to strengthen the rights of individuals and workers. 

So their premise remains that the government policymaking is the solution, not institutional reform; the people do not have inalienable social or human rights.

They also have to present their candidates on the same basis as the PAP’s: as people of superior moral virtue. Take the Raeesah Khan affair. They could have responded to it by saying that there is a genuine conversation to be had on race, that minorities genuinely are discriminated against in society. They could have doubled down and challenged the PAP narrative. They could have used it as an opportunity to talk about the institutions which govern race. Instead, they immediately neutralised the PAP criticism by behaving like the PAP: perform with moral virtue. Apologise and move on. But this means that we will remain a place where your ineffable morality is more important than legal contracts or democratic accountability.

So the WP sends a message that our values as a party and as a nation are fundamentally the same as the PAP’s. This means that it requires very little to shift a voter because the shift in identity is not fundamental. A PAP voter is not required to challenge their own self-identity to switch over. 

This means that it is easier to shift from the PAP to the WP. But, and here’s the big problem, if you believe that these ideologies are, in the long term, problematic for Singapore, as I do, then the WP is not part of the solution. They are part of the problem.

And let’s dismiss the idea that the WP are only pretending and will change once they win power. Politics doesn’t work that way. What you say in public, you have to do, or the voters will kick you out. Not only that, changes your party over time. Look at the PAP itself. It failed to live up to its socialist and democratic rhetoric after 1959, and would have lost the election if it hadn’t then locked up the entire opposition. Later, it said many things to justify its monopoly of power. We have evidence that Lee Kuan Yew personally knew that a lot of what it was saying was just for political convenience, that he didn’t entirely believe it but said it to win and keep power. But once he said it, his successors became trapped by LKY’s public rhetoric. 

So what is the PSP’s values? And don’t forget, this is not just about articulating these values. You have to live up to them. This is the hardest part. If you believe in individual rights, in institutions, in democracy, then your party must also demonstrate that. You can’t say, we believe in democracy and accountability – and then have your party be ruled by a small elite with no genuine input from the grassroots. You can’t say we believe in institutions, then let one man overrule the party vote. You can’t say we believe in transparency, and then not be transparent. You can’t say that we believe in the rights of the individual, and then when time comes, not stand up for individual rights. Politics is not just rhetorical. It is practiced. It is performative.

But if you want to deal with Singapore’s problems, then these ideologies must be challenged, and a clear alternative must be articulated. If being Singaporean is not following PAP ideology, then what is, and how, and why? What does the Progress Singapore Party stand for? And can you live up to these values? That is the challenge I lay before you.

Thank you very much.

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